Sounding out ideas on language, vivid sensory words, and iconicity

On playthings and tools

Let me draw your attention to the newly added quote at the top right of this page: “…they are playthings, not the tools of language.” The quote comes from Max Müller’s Lectures on the Science of Language (I’m citing the 1862 edition). I wrote a little about the historical context of that quote recently but let’s not worry about that right now.1

The quote is nice because along with Müller’s healthy skepticism we get an observation thrown in for free: that there is a playful dimension to imitative use of speech sounds. Müller was here of course relying on his own intuitions. In recent work, Janis Nuckolls has noted that besides playfulness, sound-symbolism for SAE speakers is often associated with ‘qualities such as childishness, whimsy, and simplicity, that make it inappropriate for many discursive contexts.’2

‘You have to pepper your speech’

Not so in Siwu, and in many other pervasively ideophonic languages. In Siwu, to stick to my own trade, use and knowledge of ideophones is a marker of eloquence, and a sign indeed that one ‘knows the language’. In fact, although my Siwu is less than fluent (to say the least), I have quite often received compliments because of the way I used ideophones — saying, for example, ɔ-bù kpɛtɛ̀ɛ̀ɛ̀ {3SG-be.wet IDPH.soaked} ‘She was drenched to the skin’ instead of the simpler, ideophone-less version.

For Siwu speakers, ideophones are not just embellishments. As one of my assistants said, ‘we could tell a story without ideophones, but we use them to let people’s mind go, or get more understanding’. Another succinct explanation came from an elder in the community: à-kparara ara {2SG-IDPH.illuminate things} ‘you illuminate things’ (and yes, kparara is an ideophone). There you have it: ideophones as tools.

Playful ones nonetheless — said the aforementioned assistant, ‘without these words, speech is buààà [bland]. You have to pepper it’. You guessed it. Buààà is another of those playthings.


  1. Müller, Max. 1862. Lectures on the Science of Language. 3rd ed. London: Longman.
  2. Nuckolls, Janis B. 1995. Quechua texts of perception. Semiotica 103, no. 1/2: 145-169.
  3. Kunene, Daniel P. 2001. Speaking the Act: The Ideophone as a Linguistic Rebel. In Ideophones, ed. F. K. Erhard Voeltz and Christa Kilian-Hatz, 183-191. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  1. Here’s the gist, if you don’t want to follow through: it’s embedded in a debate about the origins of language and Müller is here discrediting what he called the bow-wow theory, i.e. the theory of the imitative origin of language. []
  2. See Nuckolls 1995:146. Part of Nuckolls’ point is that these associations may well have played a role in the struggles to understand and appreciate the nature of ideophony in pervasively ideophonic languages. Another common misunderstanding deriving from an SAE-rooted conception of sound-symbolism is the idea that ideophones are just imitative of sound — they’re not, of course. []
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2 responses to “On playthings and tools”

  1. Another aspect of what SAE speakers view as ‘playfulness’ in ideophones, though, is not imitative or mimetic, but (to use a play on words) that it is like a play – it is performative and dramatic. Perhaps I projected and jumped to a conclusion in saying this reflects a sense of taking one’s language less seriously (a rather frightening cultural assumption of which I repent). It is very tempting to try to find some sort of cultural generalization(s) that accompany the use of ideophones, and maybe associating an ideophonic speech act with a performance would hold some water. Or maybe I just need to stop trying to think about it from my own perspective…

  2. It does hold water — ideophonic speech acts are definitely like performances. This has been noted by people like Daniel Kunene (on Sotho), G. Fortune and Doreen Helen Klassen (on Shona), and Janis Nuckolls (on Pastaza Quechua).

    On that issue, I love the following quote from Kunene 2001:

    “The ideophone stands aloof from the connecting tissues, the sinews and ligaments that flesh out the basic components of speech into a morphological, grammatical and syntactical system. By thus isolating itself, it, so to speak, climbs the stage to become an act, thus removing itself from the ordinary run-of-the-mill narrative surrounding it. (p. 190)

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